The numbers paint part of the picture: 31 completions in 54 attempts for 379 yards, four touchdowns and no picks.
Eighth-ranked Kapolei’s 40-12 win at No. 4 Mililani on Monday night is a reminder that given the right personnel, the four-wide offense is a relentless, productive machine that can travel through time. Taulia Tagovailoa, pocket passer, is a maestro on the gridiron. He’s a throwback of sorts, not to the eras of the ancient single-wing, veer or wishbone formations. He is making, quite possibly, fans of the pistol formation convert to the four-wide shotgun.
It was the line-up-and-read philosophy, a revival orchestrated during the 1970s by Mouse Davis at Portland State, that precedes what many of today’s high school football players actually know. After all, when Timmy Chang, Nick Rolovich, Colt Brennan and Bryant Moniz were at the trigger for the University of Hawaii, today’s prep players were barely out of diapers, if that.
It was, for lack of a better phrase, the run-and-shoot. The offense that most professional coaches could not and would not digest. Well, at least some. A few, notably in the fledgling USFL, and soon enough, even within the NFL, embraced what had been thriving for years at the college and high school level.
Most resisted — maybe hated — it from a coaching perspective, which was fine with the four-wide offense’s pioneers and innovators. Contrary schemes and methods tend to do well. And that’s what Mouse Davis protege June Jones brought to Hawaii as a coach. By the time he returned in 1999 — he played under then-coach Larry Price at Division-II UH in the early 1970s — to lead the University of Hawaii program, the four-wide was a fairly common and storied part of many high school programs from Kaiser to Castle to Aiea, from Kauai to Baldwin. Among the most successful, Saint Louis owes much of its football identity to this run-and-shoot DNA fostered by offensive coordinator Ron Lee.
And now, Jones is back and seemingly relishing his time as a high school offensive coordinator. The beneficiaries at Kapolei High School are many. It was more than enough that the Hurricane defense limited an often potent Mililani offense to just two touchdowns in the Monday night victory. What was perhaps most enlightening about Tagovailoa’s performance: his command.
The sophomore had already learned many of the basics and nuances of the offense by playing for his father, Galu Tagovailoa, coach of the Ewa Beach Sabers, year round. But learning from the source, Jones, who is closest to Davis — this generation’s Yoda figure when it comes to this once-reviled attack — it is something beyond the normal experience.
It’s the closest thing we might see, aside from the refined four-wide offenses run by Lee at Saint Louis and longtime practitioners across the islands, to the incredibly ethereal machine Jones, his staff (which included Lee) and players engineered for that magical stretch of time at Manoa. Tagovailoa is only a sophomore, but his pocket presence belies his age. His older brother, Tua Tagovailoa, considered by many to be the No. 1 QB prospect in the nation, says Taulia has “only” played the position since he was 9 or 10. Taulia simply doesn’t throw the ball out of the shotgun. He knows the creases and windows available, and it was especially interesting on Saturday.
Rod York, Mililani’s studious coach, went all in to counter Tagovailoa. Often, he and his staff went to zero coverage, every defender within 6-7 yards of the line of scrimmage. Sometimes closer. And they still couldn’t stop the ‘Canes. They crafted a furious pass rush, sacking Tagovailoa five times, and chased him out of the pocket constantly.
The fascinating thing, though, was that Tagovailoa knew where the pressure was coming from — seemingly everywhere — and the sacks were more of the 5-yard loss variety. The exception was an intentional grounding play that was a big loss. The rest of the time, he had his hot reads and his receivers ran their routes against solo coverage. When he had to get on his bicycle and sprint out of danger, he often got rid of the ball for a safe incompletion. His spider-sense was tingling and excellent all night.
At 379 yards and 54 attempts, he averaged a shade above 7 yards per attempt. That’s a reasonably effective number for YPA. Not sensational. Not poor. Most offenses that can average at least 7 YPA without throwing a pick will succeed. In fact, it can be argued that Mililani’s defense did yeoman’s work.
>> Beyond normal means
>> Of course, the average stat sheet or spreadsheet doesn’t contain a June Jones offense. By halftime, Tagovailoa’s 32 pass attempts had already stretched this writer’s limit. That meant adding another 30 or so “columns” to the spreadsheet, which wrecks the automatic adding component for every individual stat line — but it’s a miniscule price to pay.
>> Target location
Trends in Tagovailoa’s targeting? Not really. There was a stretch of seven plays late in the first half when he targeted Isaiah Ahana five times. The other two went to Jaymin Sarono. During that stint, Ahana pulled the ball in three times for 29 yards. No other receiver saw the ball three plays in a row, though Sarono was targeted on back-to-back plays four times. In fact, it is as the best four-wide offenses usually are: take what the defense gives. The game started with these targets, in chronological order: Sarono, RB Josh Kansana, Sam You, Wyatt Perez, Perez, You, Kaeo Alvarez-Ranan, Perez, Kansana.
>> Drop, discuss?
Jones would rather not discuss drops back in the day. Players know they made a mistake. What’s the point of talking about it? Move on. It was practically mantra. But Kapolei had its share of drops, two in the first half by my count, but ‘Canes head coach Darren Hernandez says the total was 10. TEN. The bar is high, discussion or not.
>> Hold on, nothing’s the same
Kapolei’s five offensive linemen and single RB against the world? The six pass protectors did enough to stop Mililani’s pass rush of five, sometimes six attacking the ball. York was dissatisfied with officiating on the whole — the biggest reason why he called early time outs — but he doesn’t plan to send any video to the league. It is, as he says, pointless. Even if he picks out play after play where his Trojans are being held, nothing will change, York said. (More on that later.)
>> Trojan workhorse
Kainalu Wong, a Mililani defensive back, had several deflections defending his man. Remember, no safety help on many snaps.
Tagovailoa rarely went deep, probably because there just wasn’t much time. Mililani could defend fairly well on most routes, but taking away the quick post/slants and, especially, the sideline “flag” patterns were tough to stop. Trips on most downs, but not a lot of bubble screens. Nobody in motion. No no-huddling. No hurry up.
>> Summer sweat equity
The guys who showed up in summer with Tagovailoa to work and work on these go-to routes are tasting the most fun right now. Sarono hauled in 12 passes for 139 yards and a TD. Ahana had seven grabs for 75 yards. With Perez (4-75, three TDs), Kansana (4-25) and Kaeo Alvarez-Ranan (3-60) running routes all night, Tagovailoa has a nucleus that is in sync.
>> The Perfect Game
Jones once quipped — kidding or not — that he’d love to see his offense have a game with zero rushing attempts. Not that it’s a priority to have a 100-to-zero ratio, but Kapolei ran on 21 of 75 plays against Mililani. Rushing yardage: 18. Five of those carries were sacks, though, so the more realistic numbers are 16 rushes out of 75 snaps, to be technical. Or nerdish. With Tagovailoa in the game, there were 12 rushes in 69 plays. That’s a run-pass ratio of 17.4 percent run, 82.6 percent pass.
Of course, when they sit down and study the tape, Jones will have his nuggets of golden wisdom to pass on. Back when he was at UH, fandom groups like Na Koa would sit there over lunch in a darkened room as the video rolled, rewinded, rolled and rewinded again and again with Jones holding the remote. Timmy Chang might have made a nice throw for a first down here, but over there, aahh, that would’ve been a touchdown.
No doubt, Jones is doing much the same with his much younger crew at Kapolei. Kids. He always considered his college players to be “kids.” What he’s teaching 15- and 16-year-old players made Monday night football a treat for fans who miss those UH wonder years.